March 2, 2016 Last Updated 1:48 pm

Tribune Publishing unveils major leadership shake-up; Denise Warren out as head of digital

Tribune Publishing reshuffles its leadership team, making editor-in-chief Davan Maharaj the publisher of the LA Times, while promoting Tim Ryan to President of Publishing

The world of Tribune Publishing, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times continues to get rocked as the company reported not only its fourth quarter earnings today, which showed a loss, but announced major leadership changes.

One thing is clear, Tribune Publishing will return to being a Chicago-based publisher. Under former magazine executive Jack Griffin, the publishing company was shifting eastward, bringing in new executives who would not be relocating to the Windy City. Today that appears to have ended.

LA Times Chiago Tribune newspapersDenise Warren, who had previously been pushed out The New York Times in that company’s management reshuffling, and who had been brought in by Griffin to lead digital strategy and run the east coast papers, is now out. Tribune announced that she had chosen not to relocate to Chicago and was out immediately.

“We thank Denise for her leadership, which, in a very short period of time, has resulted in measurable improvements in Tribune Publishing’s digital traffic, engagement numbers, ad impression growth and a significant pivot in the Company’s digital subscription approach that is already achieving record performance,” said new Tribune CEO Justin Dearborn.

Tribune also announced that beginning in April it will offer its print subscribers unlimited free access to their newspaper websites. The newspaper company had just recently shifted from a premium content subscription model to the more widely used metered paywall strategy.

Dearborn, who worked with major shareholder Michael Ferro at Click Commerce, announced a new leadership roster, making each editor also the publisher of the newspapers. This is a trend seen at many newspaper companies who have continued to devalue the advertising side of the business over content (with predictable results).

Here is the new line-up of executives who will lead what Tribune calls a “a content-first organization”:

Bruce Dold, Chicago Tribune
Howard Saltz, Sun Sentinel
Jeff Light, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Avido Khahaifa, Orlando Sentinel
Trif Alatzas, The Baltimore Sun
Andrew Julien, Hartford Courant
Dave Erdman, The Morning Call
Marisa Porto, Daily Press

Tim Ryan, who had been made the publisher in Los Angeles, has been promoted to the office of President of Publishing. The new publisher of the Los Angeles Times will be Davan Maharaj who, again, was the editor.

There was more: Tony Hunter has been promoted to President of National Revenue and Strategic Initiatives, reporting into Dearborn; and Malcolm CasSelle, the former CEO of Timeline Lab, was named President of New Ventures, leading new technology initiatives.

(Imagine for a second what the reaction would be if Tribune announced that the ad directors had been made editors. I hope these new publishers plan for today is to start making sales calls with the ad staff – but I doubt it.)


Denise Warren out again due to reshuffling

Tribune Publishing also announced that Ferro, who invested over $40 million in the company last month and became chairman, would be divesting his stake in Wrapports LLC, publisher of crosstown rival the Sun-Times, donating it to charity. This will end any possible conflict of interest between the two papers.

“Michael invested in this company because he sees a tremendous opportunity to create value for all stakeholders,” said Sandra Martin, CFO of Tribune Publishing. “In 2011, after the untimely passing of Jim Tyree, Michael and a group of Chicago civic leaders created Wrapports to invest in and continue the important mission of the Chicago Sun-Times. Michael has chosen to transfer all of his ownership in Wrapports and the Chicago Sun-Times to a charitable trust. This divestiture will create a very clear separation of ownership and avoid perceived conflicts of interest, while also providing millions of dollars for community programs and other charitable causes.”

As for financial results, they were not good.

Revenue grew 1.0 percent to $462 million in the fourth quarter, but that was due to the company’s acquisition of the San Diego Union Tribune. Pulling that out, revenue fell 8.7 percent versus the prior year.

Net income for Q4 was a loss of $77K, but which included a pre-tax $46 million EVSP charge and $13 million of restructuring costs and other items. Excluding these charges, adjusted net income increased to $35.3 million. For full year 2015 Tribune Publishing reported a loss of $2.77 million.

But TPUB stock jumped on all the news today, trading up just under 10 percent to $9.33. The overall market was trading flat today.

No mention was made of the possible acquisition of the assets of Freedom Communications, though there is likely not much to say as the auction will take place on March 16. The only bidders known at this time is Tribune and Digital First Media as the local bidder has reportedly pulled out.

“I thought the paper was making a lot more money than it was,” Orange County real estate developer Mike Harrah told the LA Times. “To this day I don’t know what the paper is worth…. Maybe, just maybe, it’s better off that we don’t buy it.”

Because Tribune’s stock has slumped since its first issue, the company would be a bit hampered in its acquisition ambitions, and so any Freedom acquisition would involve cash.

“There is a price where we would walk away,” Dearborn said in today’s investor conference call.

Surprisingly, there were few questions today about TPUB’s new strategy (either a sign of disinterest in newspapers by the investors on the call, or a complete ignorance of the business by these same investors, either way it was shocking). Despite all the news, it was the shortest earnings conference call I’ve ever been on.

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